National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

Clock museum shows passage of time

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

For Edo Period Japan, knowing the precise time was more a status symbol than an everyday necessity.

“When one could clearly make out the back of one’s outstretched hand, that was around ‘akemutsu,’ or slightly before sunrise,” explained Midori Kamiguchi, 56, curator of Daimyo Dokei Museum.

“In an era when people woke up with the sunrise and retired at sundown, that was about all people needed to know.”

The museum, displaying clocks dating from the Edo Period (1603-1868), is run by the family of the late Guro Kamiguchi, an artist and collector.

Guro, who died in 1970, coined the term “daimyo dokei,” or clocks that could only be owned by daimyo or a limited number of the very rich.

Life during the Edo Period revolved around nonstandard time, a system dependent on the seasons, as well as one’s latitude.

Day and night were divided into six equal periods, or “ittoki,” the lengths of which changed during the year.

On June 21, the summer solstice, for example, an ittoki during the day was two hours and 38 minutes, while one at night was an hour and 21 minutes.

The first daimyo clocks were based on timepieces that arrived from Europe in the 16th century.

They were adapted manually to nonstandard time.

During summer days, weights on a European clock were positioned away from its axis, so the mechanism rotated at a slower pace. At night, the weights were placed closer to the axis to speed up the movement.

In every daimyo castle, there was a clock smith to perform this adjustment at dusk and dawn.

Many high quality daimyo clocks were made during the first three decades of the 19th century, as the number of craftsmen with advanced skills increased.

However, production of such clocks decreased toward the end of the Edo Period, and ended when Japan adopted the Western calendar and time system on Jan. 1, 1872.

The 200 clocks Guro Kamiguchi collected include some unique shapes — “yagura-dokei” (turret clocks), “dai-dokei” (grandfather clocks), “kake-dokei” (wall clocks), “makura-dokei” (pillow clocks), “shaku-dokei” (ruler clocks) and “inro-dokei” (pocket watches). He also collected sundials, incense clocks and pedometers. About 50 are on display.

The museum serves as a reminder of a different temporal awareness, when society was not ruled by a standard time system and the system itself was made to conform to the changing seasons.